If you don’t let up on yourself and instead become comfortable always operating with some level of pain, you will evolve at a faster pace. That’s just the way it is. — Ray Dalio.
In 2013 I moved to Singapore to embark on an entrepreneurial dream and start a business. Within six years, we grew from a bootstrapped business with just $2,000 in hand to a firm that employs 84 people spread across offices in fourteen countries. While we had our fair share of challenges, we never experienced an economic downturn or recession.
We learnt through the pain points, and yes there were plenty of them. We had no funding and had a huge struggle to be cash positive from day one. We had to constantly chase collections from clients to pay salaries and expenses as almost every bank refused to give credit to a business that was under two years old. Sometimes, this meant not getting paid every month for the founders and the small team we started to hire.
The memory of a particular day when my co-founder, Surekha, and I went to every major bank in the CBD area remains strong. The cycle of rejection and pain played out on repeat. Without success, we finally sat at the quayside steps facing the Asian Civilization Museum with our biggest purchase order to date and no options to discount it.
Ours is a business that depends heavily on getting the right people on board. But hiring was a pain. No one wanted to join an agency that they had not heard of. Our initial office at an attic on Boat Quay was quaint but without windows — not very inviting for someone who imagined to work on a lot of exciting and creative projects.
However, as we worked through these pain points, it started to feel a bit like being on the console of a video game. A task completed and a challenge overcome took us to the next level which came with yet more challenges but also more rewards. Even the last year, in which we saw exponential growth, came with a lot of pain.
As we opened new offices and established reach in Japan, Australia and Germany, my co-founder was diagnosed with stage four cancer. For those who have been in the process of building a company with a partner who brings complementarity, it would be easy to understand the level of pain such a situation can bring.
What now? How do we get to the next level? How do we keep growing? Are we ready to move forward?
And, just as we found new balance following the exit of a co-founder, we were confronted with the next level — the COVID-19 level.
Being a Singaporean enterprise, our DNA has always been to punch above our weight. A trait we were fortunate to imbibe by setting up shop here, and our aspirations reflect that as well. We want to be the DBS or Singapore Airlines of the communications industry. Singapore born, global agency with deep Asian roots.
In our core, each of these pain episodes from the past has made us tougher. This COVID-19 phase too will pass. This could take six months, a year or even two years to evolve into a new normal. To the class of 2020 and entrepreneurs who find themselves with impossible timing and the biggest challenge they have faced so far — I wish to share some lessons. Lessons that I learnt through overcoming pain, which ultimately made me stronger.
Tough times build and reveal character. It is easy to state on our websites and go to town about how great our company culture is when the going is good. Now is the time to test the strength of that culture.
Are we going the extra mile? What sacrifices are leaders and their teams prepared to make? It has been said that it is through tough times that the true worth of a company culture reveals itself. When beanbags and fancy coffee machines mean little.
Now is the time to walk the talk. News reports now abound with unicorn startups (who were going on about work culture) having to slash their teams over Zoom! If you let people go because everyone else is doing it, you follow the herd. People will remember your behaviour through the bad times. Tough times don’t last forever — consider how you will be viewed as an employer once this period passes. Looking back at companies who have come through tough times, some of the most inspirational leadership and business decisions have come from those that start from the top, especially when it was voluntary.
This crisis is a perfect time to self reflect, identify flaws and recognize opportunities in your organisation. Is there a software package that you decided to cut because you could do without the expense for now? Can you push yourselves to finding a more efficient system to create leads without travel? Can you critically review what your investors’ funding will be used for now?
Reflect, review, adapt.
What you get is a chance to explore operating in leaner and more efficient ways. For us, one of the unnecessary expenses we identified is office space. We were planning to double our office size in July. In the new normal, office space is overrated, a large office is a luxury we can live without.
It’s not the hunger games. Every little act of kindness, empathy and generosity goes a long way. Allow your character to reveal itself — people will remember this. Talk to your vendors, clients, peers, find out how you can help even if you are hurting.
And finally, be grateful. Be grateful for what you have going. Embrace the pain and be grateful for the learning. Every crisis presents an opportunity. Reflect, rest, get better, learn new things. Once this is over, there will be a lot of re-building to do. Take this time to prepare yourselves for the next level. It will undoubtedly come with challenges of its own, but my hunch is that it will get easier.